I like going to my local farmers’ market. Ours is open on Sunday afternoons and has gotten steadily better with more selection of fruits, vegetables, cheeses and now even meats all from local growers. Seattle and Portland have strong farmer’s market traditions and Seattle has the granddaddy of them all Pike Place Market. All really good, hearty and local options. But can everyone access the bounties available at the local farmer’s market? Not eating well can take a toll on our bodies but sometimes eating well comes at a price too.

When it comes to the health question a recent study makes some very strong connections between zoning, proximity to fresh food and obesity. Basically if you live near a farmers market you are more likely to live in a compact community and enjoy a lower body mass index, a standard measure of obesity:

  • The results presented here indicate that the food environment is significantly associated with body size, net of individual and neighborhood characteristics and neighborhood walkability features. A higher local density of BMI-healthy food outlets was associated with a lower mean BMI, a lower prevalence of overweight[people], and a lower prevalence of obesity. BMI-unhealthy food stores and restaurants were far more abundant than healthy ones, but the density of these unhealthy food outlets was not significantly associated with BMI or with body size categories.

    Now let’s consider the price of this healthy food? Anyone who has visited their local farmers’ market, where payment in cash is often required, knows that it can be quite expensive. For anyone on a fixed income, the price for fresh, local food is prohibitive—no matter what the access in their neighborhood.

    A New York Times series– Pete Wells’ Cooking With Dexter—recently touched on this phenomenon. The study looked at New York City, but “The New Chicken Economy” documents Wells’ experience with healthy chickens:

    I rummaged through the cooler chest at the farmers’ market on a recent Saturday, looking for a fat, round hen. I dug up a five-pounder, big enough to feed the four of us for two or three meals. If I’d been paying attention, I would have read the sign warning that this farmer expected $7 a pound for his pasture-raised poultry. He’s a nice man, so I refrained from asking him the obvious question: “Are you insane?” I counted out the cash, wandered away and knew that I was the crazy one.

    My experience has been the same. I have opted to do what I can to follow the call in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Meat Manifesto which revels in eating meat—but only the right kinds of meat. He suggests, in fact makes a moral imperative, “to spend a little more on it, a little less often—or to buy cheaper cuts of better meat.”

    I have had mixed results. Often convenience wins out over choosing the right meat or spending a bit more on something I know is local and healthier for me. And as Wells points out in this era of downsizing and lay-offs price is an increasingly important concern for consumers making food choices.

    So how do we resolve the intuitive conflict between healthy food and affordability. I considered this with the question of whether green housing can and should be affordable.  And we have been doing some research on affordability and sustainability specifically as it affects housing. A compelling model to address the issue of affordability, housing and cost of living (including food cost) is the residual income model. This residual income approach looks at housing costs but also how much money is left over after housing costs are paid for. No matter how much housing costs if a person or family doesn’t have enough money to pay for food, child care or transportation after paying for their housing costs that household needs help with housing or other expenses.

    Intrepid Sightline intern Avi Allison has been exploring that model (when he isn’t eating Snickers bars) as we look at housing affordability. We have liked residual income because it seems to be a promising method of defining affordability in a less arbitrary way than pegging it to 30 percent of Area Medium Income (AMI) or a percentage of poverty income.

    And the good news is that evidence (like the findings of this study) is growing that there is a strong positive relationship between density, walkability, food access and health. The next task is finding ways to make each of those options more affordable for the families that need access to affordable housing and food.